Would You Fire an Employee for Trying to Secede From the Union?
Last April, a veteran Sarasota Police homicide detective went to the city's courthouse and filed documents to secede from the United States of America.
Earlier this month, he was fired for it.
Detective Tom Laughlin, who handled some of the west Florida city's highest profile cases, filed a document declaring himself a 'sovereign citizen,' according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. He put his thumb print and signature on the back of all 36 pages, plus a photocopy of 21 silver pieces—the price to become a 'freeman.'
As he did so, the 42-year-old detective joined a small but growing group of U.S. citizens—the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates there are some 300,000 of them—who claim they aren't subject to federal law, that they no longer have to pay taxes, and that their homes are their embassies. (Among those calling themselves sovereign: Terry Nichols of Oklahoma City bombing fame. The FBI scrutinizes citizens who declare themselves sovereign; view the agency's stance on sovereign citizenship as domestic terrorism here.)
Court documents are public record (and viewable on the Internet—click here to download Laughlin's), so colleagues quickly discovered Laughlin's status update. According to internal reports cited by the Herald-Tribune, they feared his status could jeopardize criminal cases he worked on.
After an internal inquiry began in July, supervisors accused Laughlin of fraternizing with a hate group that advocates violence, not answering questions honestly, and using department computers to search websites on sovereign citizens. A review board recommended a four-week suspension and a transfer out of the criminal investigative division. (Prosectors said Laughlin didn't break any laws, though city attorneys thought he might have violated his oath of office.)
Instead, Sarasota Police Chief Mikel Hollaway fired him.
"The honesty issue was very, very important to the chief," city manager Bob Bartolotta, with whom Hollaway discussed the issue, told the Herald-Tribune. "He has to rely on his officers to be honest at all times, and I think that was the biggest factor in his decision."
Laughlin plans to appeal the firing. He says by June he'd already started having second thoughts about his decision to secede. He also said he tried to make the court records invalid, but that they can't be redacted—or removed from a public website.
"I filed those documents without really reading them," he told the Herald-Tribune. "All I wanted to do was make a political statement about the way things are going in this country. I didn't want to be involved in any kind of extremist movement." (The detective had worried, among other things, that "Obamacare" was bad for his family.)
Laughlin told the Herald-Tribune: "I screwed up and I deserve to take my lumps. I know what I did was stupid. But I don't think I deserve to lose my job over it. I have been a police officer since I was 19 years old. This is all I know."
Inc. contributing editor Courtney Rubin was for five years a London-based staff writer for People magazine. Rubin, a former senior writer for Washingtonian magazine, has written for the New York Times magazine, Time, Marie Claire, and other publications. She is the author of The Weight-Loss Diaries.